Health & Nutrition with Chef Hanna: Trail Mix Cookies

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” – James Beard

There is debate as to how and when the Pittsburgh cookie table came to be, but there is no question that it’s a Pittsburgh tradition. Some say the tradition came about during the Great Depression. It’s said that wedding guests would bring their favorite cookie to the table to lessen the financial burden of the evening for the newlywed couple. In this sense, families and communities came together to support the couple as they embark on their new lives together.

Family and friends start planning cookie tables just about as soon as the wedding planning starts. Everyone seems to have their own specialty cookie that they’re sure to bring. Each step of a cookie table involves community – from planning, to preparing, storing, and finally displaying at the event. Folks start baking cookies months before the wedding, storing them in every inch of freezer space available before the big day. Even after the wedding, cookies are enjoyed and given away for weeks following the big day. Visits to Grandma usually involve a sendoff of a Ziploc bag of the cookie spread (Grandma being sure that you don’t go home empty-handed while also trying to reclaim an inch of freezer space). Platters and trays will be filled up with cookies at every get-together for months to come. It’s always a good reminder of who made what cookie and the love that went into preparing each and every one.

The first time I brought my Californian husband to a Pittsburgh wedding, he couldn’t wrap his head around not the one, but the two cookie tables that flanked the reception hall. The first dessert plate he grabbed had just a couple of cookies, followed by a second plate, and then a third. As wedding photos started to take longer than expected, he realized that the cookies on the opposite table held different options than the first and had to start the sampling process all over again. By the time dinner was served, he had enjoyed so many cookies he turned his head up at the steak tips, which was unheard of for my meat-loving fella. Later, when he proposed to me, the first question was if I would marry him, quickly followed by the question of which cookies would be on our cookie table.

Weddings are already a community event, but Pittsburghers add another layer of community with the love that comes along with preparing and presenting a cookie table. While working at a resort in California, I came across an order for a wedding that included the cake I would be preparing, as well as a note about the hundreds of cookies being shipped in that would need to be stored before the reception. I knew immediately that at least one of the families involved in the wedding was from Pittsburgh and had an instant connection to these folks who I hadn’t even met. Cookie tables are a great way to bring people together while creating a sense of community.

My favorite cookie is a gooey chocolate chip cookie, but being high in carbs, sugar, and fat, they aren’t necessarily the best cookie for you. Chocolate chip cookies are great as a decadent treat, but a more health-friendly cookie is my very own “Trail Cookie.” They are gluten-free, high in protein (thanks to peanut butter), and contain multiple fruits. These cookies are still considered a treat, but are a better balanced option. Enoy!

Hanna’s Trail Mix Cookies

  • ½ Cup Apple Sauce
  • 1 Cup Sugar
  • ½ Cup Peanut Butter
  • 2 Cups Oats
  • 1 Cup Coconut
  • ½ Cup Raisins or Craisins
  • 1 Tsp Cinnamon
  • ½ tsp Baking Soda
  • ½ Cup Chocolate Chips

Preheat oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Mix apple sauce, sugar, and peanut butter together, and then stir in the remaining ingredients. Scoop dough using a small cookie scoop (1 tablespoon scoop) or a tablespoon, and drop onto the prepared cookie sheet. Bake cookies for 11 to 12 minutes, just until set.

Written by Hanna McCollum, Iris Respite House Chef & Innkeeper

Notes from the Garden: Coffee & Connection

October Plant of the Month: Coffea arabica

doTERRA Essential Oil of the Month: Douglas Fir

On the global level of plant consumption and connection, coffee is an international mogul. It’s one of the top ten most traded commodities in the world, and it serves to connect. There are estimates of 125 million people employed by the coffee industry, either in growing, roasting, exporting, or retail. Chances are, the labor of many different hands, from many different lands, have gone into the next cup of coffee you enjoy.

We drink 2.6 billion cups of coffee worldwide every day. The rise of coffeehouse culture has put one on nearly every corner in major American metropolises and beyond, bringing in folks from the community not only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee made their way, but also to socialize, connect, and exchange information. It seems the coffee bean is bringing us all together.

The coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffee plant. It has sweet-smelling flowers and grows in a tropical weather band around the equator, called the “bean belt,” that spans 70 countries! The seed is found in the fruit, or red “coffee cherry.” When it’s picked, and before they’re roasted, the seeds are green and have a vegetable taste. After the cherries are harvested, the seeds are extracted through a pulping and fermentation process, then dried in the sun. This prepares them for roasting, a complex, alchemical drying process where the nuances of each coffee’s flavor profile are coaxed out at temps of 400 degrees.

Here, the seed is transformed into the bean we know and love. You don’t want just anyone roasting your coffee. This process is so crucial that seconds can make the difference between a perfectly roasted batch of coffee and one that’s considered ruined. Flavor palates like fruity, floral, robust, or chocolaty are all enhanced by roasting. You know that transporting scent of freshly ground coffee? Thank the roaster.

Coffee builds community, one cup at a time. You can always find it at Hope Grows, for every meeting, gathering, and support group. As humans, we are hardwired to connect, both with each other and the natural world. This is something never to be taken for granted, especially in any healing process.

One of the greatest lessons that Hope Grows has taught me is the value of human connection, and to never underestimate its power. In fact, one of Hope Grows’ signature essential oils is called “Abundantly Connected,” and for good reason. Connection moves people, while working to support and unify one another. So many connections run deeper than we can imagine, as there is so much the eye can’t see.

As you enjoy your next cup of coffee, ponder this: data scientist Riccardo Sabatini printed out the entire human genome and wheeled it onstage for his 2016 TED talk. All told, it takes up 262,000 densely printed pages. Of those 262,000 pages, only 500 of them, a mere .19%, comprise the number of pages of genetic code that contains what makes us different from one another. The other 261,500 pages, or 99.81%, of our genetic code is shared by all humans on the planet. Sometimes, connecting over a good cup of coffee may just help us find what’s been there all along.

Gives new meaning to the question: wanna get a cup of coffee?

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist

Health & Nutrition with Chef Hanna: September 2023

“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” – Irish Proverb

We use food not only to nourish our bodies, but to share and connect with those around us. One of my earliest memories is laughing with my sister while we each wore slices of swiss cheese on our faces and looked through the holes at each other like we were wearing fancy glasses.

I have come to find that preparing and sharing food with others is my love language. Even if the food isn’t the best, good company can make food taste even better. Heck, laughing together over how bad some food turns out can make it taste a little better, too!

Thinking back on other laughing moments throughout my life, I’m reminded of my mom. My mom has always listened to music in the kitchen while cooking. She’ll grab whoever is in close range to whirl them around to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” or to give them a dip to Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House.” These dance moves are always full of laughter as you (gracefully) try to avoid bumping into the kitchen island or a hot pot on the stove.

One of my favorite foods that my mom makes while dancing through the kitchen is macaroni and cheese. It’s been one of my favorites since I was a kid, and always reminds me of those entertaining, laughing moments in my mom’s kitchen. As comforting as her classic mac and cheese is, it’s not the healthiest. The following options can be subbed to up the nutritional value of this cozy dish:

Lower Calorie, Higher Nutrition
Subbing pureed roasted butternut squash for some of the advised cheese amount to lower the fat and caloric density of mac and cheese is a great way to add nutritional value, as well as a lovely silky-smooth texture to the sauce.

Butternut squash can be halved, rubbed in olive oil, and roasted cut side down until tender. The skin can then be peeled off, or the flesh can be scooped out. Alternatively, pre-cut butternut squash is available in most grocery store freezer sections. Frozen butternut squash can be roasted on an olive oil greased sheet pan.

Once the butternut squash is roasted, mash using a potato masher and stir into prepared macaroni and cheese sauce while holding back some of the usual cheese amount.

Traditional pasta can be replaced with a legume pasta. Aside from the gluten-free benefit, this option is higher in both protein and fiber value as well. My favorite brand of gluten-free pasta is Banza. Banza pasta is made using garbanzo beans and packed with twice the amount of protein and three times as much fiber as traditional pasta. Gluten-free pastas can be prone to breaking down quickly, as it does not have the gluten structure to hold it together. A good way to avoid this is to give the dish just a few good stirs once adding the pasta to the sauce, and serving immediately.

Vegan mac and cheese can be made by soaking 1.5 cups cashews (for every 12 oz of pasta) in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then drain and blend with 1 cup of fresh water, 8 oz of vegan shredded cheese, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a sprinkle of the following: nutritional yeast, turmeric, garlic powder, and salt. A good vegan shredded cheddar is Violife Cheese Alternative, Just Like Cheddar Shreds.

Try mixing any or all of the above options for a nutrient-packed bowl of mac and cheese and grab an unsuspecting loved one for a do-si-do around the kitchen while you cook…inciting laughter and creating great memories with those around you.

Written by Hanna McCollum, Iris Respite House Chef & Innkeeper

Reflections from the Iris Respite House Healing Gardens September 2023

“The earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Laughter knows no bounds. Like the natural world, it serves to connect. Truth and innocence often carry it. It can serve to link us together when we least expect it, even in the scariest of moments, and the best ones are simply unforgettable. We need good laughs, like we need each other. It’s part of what connects us as humans. And, in today’s market of stress-relieving products, it can ease suffering without costing a cent.

The therapeutic effects of laughter on the mind and body are well documented. It’s a powerful healer. The next time you laugh so hard you pee your pants, think about this: a hearty laugh ripples through the motor cortex, which is involved in muscle control (including the bladder!), the frontal lobe (which helps one understand context), and the limbic system (which modulates positive emotions). It creates social bonds, builds resiliency, facilitates intimacy, increases immune cells and antibodies, relieves tension and stress, and can lower levels of anxiety and depression. As someone who has battled high levels of anxiety, I can vouch for how much genuine laughter can temper it. Even better: you can never overdose!

Like bouquets of flowers, good laughs always leave you wanting more. I discovered that the physiological benefits of laughter actually parallel the ones experienced by people who are enjoying a bouquet of flowers, even more so if they spend any amount of time arranging them. They both can trigger the release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, the “feel better hormones,” as well as reduce levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” They both serve to create social bonds, facilitate an appreciation for life, can lower anxiety, and help lift depression. Looks like Emerson had it right!

This fall, as you enjoy the earth’s autumnal laughter of flowers, see if you can spot some autumn crocuses. They have a chalice shaped flower, like that of the spring blooming crocus, but autumn crocus flowers are a bit larger. My favorite part of this plant is the unique quality of blooming long after the foliage has died back, like resurrection lilies. That’s how autumn crocuses got the common name “naked ladies,” since it’s only the flower that comes up in the fall. To anyone who didn’t know the plant, with such a long stretch of time in between foliage dye back and the “naked” flowers, it could be one of the earth’s more unexpected autumn laughs.

Genuine laughter, like great music, can’t be forced. It has to move through you from the inside out. That’s why, when it’s real, it’s such a gift. And it almost always has a great story behind it. I leave you with this: I’ve been writing this month’s blog from a cabin in the woods where my extended family has gathered for the week to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. After a day of hiking, I had the door shut, my laptop open, and was researching the health benefits of laughter when my cousin came in the room. After chatting calmly with me for a few moments, her facial expression changed drastically when she felt what she was sure was a tick bite her on her rearend. Mind you, she was completely covered from the mid-neck down. I don’t know how any insect would have even gotten beyond her outer layer of clothing. Nevertheless, without wasting a moment, she dropped her pants in a panic right in front of me and had to make sure there were no ticks attached to her in any way. Turns out it had been a piece of plastic that had gotten lodged in her underwear! We both laughed so hard it hurt. When I finally caught my breath, before my oxytocin levels had come down, I marveled at the moment. Innocence and truth had us riding the waves of laughter once again. And my anxiety? Nowhere in sight.

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist

Reflections from the Iris Respite House Healing Gardens August 2023

Apple trees are ominous. They’re not just for food. They bear the tempter’s power. Don’t hang out around them. If you do, eat at your own risk. Mythologically speaking, apples have earned the right to be feared. One bite and you lose your innocence. A gateway to darkness.

Nutritionally speaking, though, apples lose that power. Packed with 400 phytochemicals, 10% of the daily recommended dose of vitamin C, high in water and fiber (making them both hydrating and filling), apples are the picture of health. There is data to support them lowering the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; aiding in weight loss; and promoting the growth of good gut bacteria. This is something you want to put in your body, daily! That said, Eve certainly wasn’t tempted by all of the phytonutrients God had been denying her. Instead, it was the knowledge of good and evil, the promise that “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5)

Ever struggle with temptation? A trip to the dark side? A decision you regret, one made out of blindness, pleasure-seeking, or, God forbid, ill will? Who hasn’t? So often, we think it’s a way out of misery, when in the end, it always ends up yielding more turbulence. The struggle is just as real as all those phytochemicals you find in every bite. Sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s pride, sometimes it’s just pure selfishness. No matter what the reason, falling to temptation has always taught me some higher lesson about how great the disparity actually is between God’s will and my own desires. His ways, I have learned, really are much, much higher than ours. The fallout, loss of wisdom, light, grace, and momentum from any temptation drives that home unforgettably.

Have you ever tried to find yourself? A journey rife with temptation and blind alleys. I used to get too angry, too often. Simmer and boil. However, thanks to a prayer life, and a benevolent and loving God, once I realized an infuriating situation was not just about me, that there were other minds, experiences, and souls involved, whom God also loved very much, I started to get over it more easily. When I’m tempted to get angry about something, it’s often because I’m not seeing the whole picture. And once I do, the fire quells a bit. This doesn’t mean I am without anger, not at all. It just means I can see a little more of reality than I could before. My eyes have been opened.

One of the lessons that the Hope Grows gardens have taught me about temptation is to feed myself. I have always been tempted to blow my body off until I can’t anymore, often prioritizing something else in lieu of stopping to eat so I can get more done. Or, eating something without any merit (unlike raw apples, of course) for pleasure or just to keep moving. During the growing season at Hope Grows, I’ll sometimes find myself with extra cucumbers, peppers, or tomatoes that need to be eaten. If I’m hungry enough, I’ll wash them and eat them on the spot.

I grew up in a city apartment, so aside from an occasional backyard tomato plant, I wasn’t picking fresh veggies. If you’ve never eaten something fresh off the vine, I urge you to volunteer at a local farm. I do believe if everyone had access to fresh picked fruits and vegetables, levels of illness would take a marked downturn. The amount of healing energy that one ingests with a freshly picked vegetable or fruit never fails to stop me in my tracks. It’s still vibrating with the sun’s love and the earth’s energy, leaving me all the more fortified and able to proceed in my work. The physiological return on the investment of time it takes to stop and feed myself, with fresh food, is far higher than not taking the time to eat. Once again, my eyes have been opened.

Growing apple trees requires patience. They take 4-8 years to produce their first fruits. But they are worth the wait. An apple tree in full bloom is one of spring’s most gorgeous sights, sweet smelling and a delight to the pollinators. In the years to come, I would actually love to see apple trees, maintained of course, have a greater presence in our urban landscapes. Not only for the pleasure of their beauty and yummy fruit, but simply to offer abundant natural reminders to seek God’s will in all matters and choose wisely.

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist

The Art of Letting Go: Balancing Expectations in Caregiving and Lessons from Nature

In the month of June, the ThinkCaregiver™ program and its Simple Suggestions talked about expectations and all it can ensue. We started the month off with the quote by Debra L. Reble, “We must let go of any expectations of how life should be, in order to experience how life can be.” Quite profound and very relatable to nature and all things caregiving.  

Nature is a vast and intricate system that has evolved over billions of years. It offers numerous lessons and inspirations for all of us and, as I have said in the past, has a reciprocity that closely connects to the give and take of living and caring.

Caregiving, as I have said and advocated before, involves support, assistance, and nurturing to those who require help due to an age-related disease, a chronic illness, a physical or mental disability, childhood special needs, veterans, and other circumstances. While caregiving can be fulfilling and meaningful, it can drain one physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Not too mention, it can drain us financially and of our career that one has worked very hard to achieve.

One does not go into helping someone at the most vulnerable times of their lives with the expectation that they are going to be drained of so much. Although I believe it is natural to have expectations once someone is the role of caregiving, sometimes it is best to put them aside. Once put aside, the result can indeed be helpful.

Reduced stress and frustration are at the top of the list of reasons. An increase in becoming adaptable, having improved emotional well-being, a greater dynamic in the relationship and an easier time at living in the present moment. I think it is important to point out that letting go of expectations does not mean abandoning goals or ceasing to care, it is more about cultivating a mindset of acceptance and compassion. In doing this, one can focus on providing the best care possible while recognizing and appreciating the uniqueness of each situation and individual journey.

In addition, setting aside expectations can help one to strike a balance. It’s still important to have realistic goals, seek appropriate support, and maintain a level of structure and planning in caregiving, however, finding a middle ground between letting go of rigid expectations and maintaining a proactive and organized approach can help caregivers navigate their roles effectively.

Nature can help with this. It offers a multitude of expectations and lessons. By observing and learning from nature, we can develop a greater understanding of our place in the world and foster a more harmonious relationship with both the natural environment and each other. Consider one or more of those lessons.